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Oscars 2019: Between Hedonism and Activism, all that Glitters is not Gold

The Oscars saw the long-awaited redemption for the African-American talents. But then Green Book wins and the Italian-American remains a caricature

Una scena del film "Green Book" (Courtesy Universal Pictures).

If we accept the idea that the work of art can be the embodiment of the status quo of our society, then we must also contemplate all of its paradoxes. From this point of view, even the surprise victory of Green Book leaves room for shadows kept deliberately away from the spotlight. What better story than that of the African-American pianist Don Shirley who, along with his trusty Italian-American bouncer Tony Vallelonga, challenged the conventions of the racist America of the 1960s? What could be more congruent with the whole unscripted/scripted inclusive message of the evening? But is it indeed all that inclusive?

The 91st edition of the Academy Awards will make history, not only because it was the first one not graced by a host, but also because it marks the year with the most African American winners in history. This alone is revolutionary. We certainly can’t and won’t forget that freeing scream and the overwhelming emotion of Halle Barry, accepting the award for best actress, for the first time ever handed to an African American woman. And it was in just 2002, not such a long time ago. That’s why this year wins by Regina King – Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk; Mahershala Ali – Best Supporting Actor for Green Book; Spike Lee – Best Original Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman; Ruth Carter – Best Costume Design – and Hannah Beachler – Best Set Design, both for Black Panther; are immensely significant.

Even the great master of American cinema, Spike Lee, had never managed to get on the stage as a winner, apart from  receiving the Honorary Academy Award in 2016. His eloquent and outspoken speech exalted the importance and the relevance of this February Black History Month – inviting Americans to vote carefully at the next elections: “Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.” And it is no shocker that his speech got Trump’s attention.

Also important are the victories of Regina King and in particular of Ruth Carter, the first African-American woman in history to win in the Best Costume category and Hannah Beachler, the first African-American woman to win for the Best Set Design. “I did my best, and my best is enough,” she said at the end of her heartfelt thank you speech, which seemed to affix an important seal to the discrimination that for years had struck the black artists and especially the black women on the stage of the Oscars.

Alfonso Cuaron.

Although Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was one of the favorites of the evening and garnered ten nominations, it did not win the most coveted prize, for best film. Yet Cuaron still triumphed as a director, and the film, for Best Foreign Film and Best Photography. This is definitely the film of the year, which, starting out as an “outsider” has quickly become an “insider,” bringing with it an important message of integration for Mexico, and a statement on the Trumpian America of today. “I want to thank the Academy for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman, one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without work rights, a character that had been historically relegated to the background in cinema. As artists, our job is to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times when we are being encouraged to look away.”

The director’s statement definitely touches a central issue: the responsibility of the work of art; the militancy of the artist and his (or her) social duty to become a person of his time and to shape his aesthetic material according to the world in which he is living. This edition of the Oscars raises a fundamental question, an almost classic aesthetic question that is very timely. Can a work of art be an end in itself? Can it still afford to give us a purely hedonistic experience, or must it, by necessity, educate, provoke, consecrate, desecrate, decompose and then reconstruct a more complete sense of an ideal or of a political-social issue?

It seems that this is a bit the topic of the last major media events, from the recent Golden Globes to the very Italian Sanremo Festival. It seems difficult to separate the pure aesthetic pleasure from the message, whether the message is consciously orchestrated by the artist, or whether it is extrapolated, manipulated by a certain political and intellectual lobby. To return to the Oscars 2019, in many cases the form, the message and the content have been well worth the praise of the Academy for their exact alchemy and consistency. Roma is an example, and beyond any kind of politicism, it is, in fact, an aesthetically superlative film, acted with newfound contemporary neorealism, and it does address a social condition that it is important to talk about, especially in today’s America.

Rami Malek.

But maybe all that glitters was not gold on the 2019 Oscars statuette. The connection between content and aesthetics becomes an issue again with Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Undoubtedly Rami Malek deserved the Oscar for Best Actor even if he had nothing less than his competitors, but we know that the Academy loves to reward the bigger than life physical transformations at the cost of sometimes ignoring the more minimalist interpretations. And his was the most striking.

This victory is perfectly in line with the unscripted/scripted script of the evening that focused on the central issue of multiracial and gender integration. “I think to anyone struggling… we made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically as himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” He stated. Adding, “I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I am a first generation American, and part of my story is being written right now and I could not be more grateful.”

And it is certainly important that this happened, that Queen were present in the room and opened the evening with Adam Lambert bringing back to life Freddy Mercury’s extraordinary existence. Even though that life, much as that of the biopic’s director Bryan Singer–both accused of abuse and violence against underage boys–turned out to be not at all exemplary.

The shadows cast by these accusations did not cloud the gleam of the four statues collected by the film, although many had cried that it was immoral for the movie to be still present at the Oscars as a contender. But perhaps if we accept that the work of art is the embodiment of a status quo of our society, then we must also contemplate all its paradoxes, its inconsistencies, and its misleading ugliness. From this point of view, even the surprise victory of Green Book leaves room for shadows deliberately kept out of the spotlight.

On paper, Peter Farrelly’s film seems to be the perfect summa, the perfect compendium, the acme of the unscripted/scripted script of the evening. What better story than that of the African-American pianist Don Shirley who, along with his trusty Italian-American bouncer Tony Vallelonga, challenged the conventions of the racist America of the 1960s? What could be more congruent with the whole unscripted/scripted inclusive message of the evening? But is it indeed all that inclusive?

The film itself, which also won the award for the best original screenplay as well as the best-supporting actor, Mahershala Ali, is dramaturgically weaker than its competitors, if anything, in my humble opinion it cannot be compared to the visual and dramatic force of Roma, BlacKkKlansman, A Star is Born and The Favorite, which should have deserved much more attention. The direction of Yorgos Lanthimos is spectacular as well as the tone and the chiaroscuro narration of the film, ironically dramatic and dramatically ironical.

Green Book, however, has a message that is so clear, so readable, almost didactic, that makes it the ideal standard bearer of these Oscars 2019. The paradox, however, is at the heart of the important issue that dominates. While the film does a fair job, though often superficial, of representing the racial dynamics of America in the 60s before the Civil Rights Act that abolished segregation, it falls into the trap of creating a caricature of another important ethnic diversity, the Italian-American. The character of Viggo Mortensen is the apotheosis of all that The Godfather or The Sopranos have accustomed us to seeing as Italian American culture, that always seems to be nothing more than the Mafia, La famiglia, church, spaghetti … pizza and mandolin. And maybe Mortensen also ennobles a character that is not a masterpiece of dramatic writing. And perhaps the time when we will go deeper into the understanding of the Italian-American ethnicity and provide a more nuanced image, that goes beyond the stereotypes, will come; but there is certainly no urgency about this in today’s American cinema. This seems obvious.

Even the Best Animated Feature, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, presents us with a new universe for what is the cliché of the heroes of American comic books. Behind the timeless Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, have always been hidden clear and unmistakable representations of American white machismo, and the fact that this new Spiderman is of African American origin–and in particular Puerto Rican– certainly makes a big difference. It makes a strong anti-Trump statement, given that this character had been conceived in honor of Obama. It is among other things the only Oscar that rewards Italian excellence this year: the designer Sara Picchelli.

From the perspective of sheer entertainment and pleasure, this year’s Oscars presentation offered very little. The real show was the performances –Queen with Adam Lambert, Jennifer Hudson, the superb Bette Midler and of course, Lady Gaga. The Oscar winner for Best Song, “Shallow”, along with Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born, has brought the Oscars back to the glitter of the now classic Hollywood, that allowed people to escape from reality and forged their American dream. Talent, interpretation, emotional strength, Lady Gaga took the stage as a real diva in a performance that was a powerhouse sweet romance, paired with an equally astonishing Bradley Cooper.

Those who are most nostalgic, like me, are perhaps missing the Hollywood of Marylin Monroe, Rock Hudson, Liza Minelli, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, that golden age of gods and goddesses. That sense of a curious, almost morbid, trepidation that stirred the audience when there was a Joan Crawford and a Bette Davis competing and feuding for an Oscar, seems now nothing more than an old black and white movie that we watch for the nostalgia. Do people care that much anymore that the sublime Glenn Close has lost for the seventh time that much longed-for Oscar, even if in favor of an outstanding and virtuosic rival, Olivia Colman?

The forces at play here are much weightier. The spectacle, the show, the glitter are laden with a greater seriousness. Evidently though still golden and shiny, the contemporary Oscars are burdened by darker shadows, by more sober tones, are necessarily less carefree. If Cinema is still that dream factory illuminated by the Lumière in the early twentieth century, the dreams that contemporary American movies invite us to live are clear-eyed, vigilant, alarming and fiercely realistic.

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